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Monday, May 27, 2024

Brunswick officials ‘begrudgingly’ boost RO project funding, despite delays

The Northwest Water Treatment Plant’s reverse osmosis system was scheduled for final completion by December this year, but commissioners voted to amend the contract to an anticipated completion of December 2024 and transfer an additional $3.4 million for construction administration services. (Courtesy Brunswick County)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — Brunswick County residents have been waiting almost two years for a water treatment system that effectively removes PFAS; now the timeline has been extended and the price has risen.

IN OTHER NEWS: H2GO digs deep for increased water capacity in Brunswick County

The Northwest Water Treatment Plant’s reverse osmosis system was scheduled for final completion by December this year. After a series of delays, the project’s deputy director asked Brunswick Commissioners to amend the contract to an anticipated completion of December 2024 and transfer an additional $3.4 million for construction administration services.

Commissioners broadly expressed dissatisfaction with the project’s contractors, engineering and consulting firm CDM Smith and construction firm Oscar Renda Contracting, before unanimously approving the amendment to the contract at a meeting last week.

“One thing for our staff to consider — and it’s too late for this contract — but something I’ve heard DOT folks mention in some of their contracts is they have call backs where if the contractor does not get it done by the deadline, they get penalized,” Commissioner Frank Williams said at the meeting. “And with that I will begrudgingly make a motion to approve this.”

The amendment increases the project cost from $20,792,090 to $24,229,190. The figure consists of a $1,637,100 transfer from contingency funds and $1,800,000 from a construction fund within the project. Of the $3,437,100 total, $315,200 will go to project and quality management; $740,700 for construction observation services; and $2,381,200 will be allocated to general services during construction.

While the new anticipated completion is the end of 2024, the amendment extends the contract time period through December 2025.

Brunswick Public Utilities Director John Nichols, who is a project manager for the Northwest reverse osmosis system, said delays were caused largely by supply chain issues, including pumping and roofing equipment. He noted some phases of the project took place amid the Covid-19 pandemic, contributing to supply chain issues. He also cited weather and rework, or changes to original designs, as additional obstacles. 

Brunswick’s considerations to install a low-pressure reverse osmosis system in the Northwest water treatment plant date back to at least 2010. After the discovery of PFAS substances in the Cape Fear River in June 2017, commissioners chose CDM Smith in January 2018 to evaluate options for eliminating the substances in the county. Notably, a 2020 study found Brunswick County to be the most PFAS-contaminated area out of 44 metropolitan areas tested in the nation.

In April 2018, CDM Smith reported a preliminary low-pressure reverse osmosis system reduced most PFAS to near-undetectable levels; commissioners approved constructing such a facility in the Northwest Water Treatment Center in May 2020.

The county first told residents they’d have access to reverse osmosis-treated water in December 2021. But the bid process stalled due to the complexity and cost of the project; the county entered a contract with Oscar Renda in May 2020 to construct the plant with an anticipated final completion of August 2023.

Commissioner Mike Forte expressed frustration at the multiple deferrals. He lambasted what he perceived as incompetence and in-fighting of contractors and subcontractors; Oscar Renda terminated its contract with an electrical subcontractor in May 2023.

“It infuriates me that all the surrounding water providers have their systems up and running. And here we are, looking at close to a year-and-a-half before ours is up and running,” he said at the meeting.

Chairman Randy Thompson echoed Forte’s complaints, saying he could not imagine running a private business like CDM Smith.

“What assurances do we have that things are going to be different than what they’ve been?” he said. “I can’t imagine that whenever you put your bid in for another job that you’re going to give Brunswick County as a reference. If you do, I hope they don’t call the chair, or the vice-chair, or any of the other commissioners.”

Forte said he believed CDM Smith and Oscar Renda would delay Brunswick’s project and ask for more money again in the future.

“To say I’m upset is an understatement,” Forte said. “Our citizens are going to look at us like, ‘Why is Brunswick County so backed up when everybody else is done?’ We look like fools.”

Nichols argued the project is much larger than others in the county. H2GO’s aquifer-based reverse osmosis facility in Leland currently treats 3 million gallons of water per day for 45,000 customers in Leland, Belville, and unincorporated areas of the county. 

CFPUA launched the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant’s granular activated carbon filters last September, which are capable of filtering 44 million gallons per day. The plant supplies water to 80% of CFPUA customers; CFPUA executive director Ken Waldroup claimed the upgrade benefits 200,000 customers. However, at least one PFAS compound has broken through the plant’s GAC filters.

He also noted other local reverse osmosis facilities primarily treat groundwater; Brunswick Water Resources Manager Glenn Walker told Port City Daily the Northwest facility “will only take filtered water from the existing Northwest Water Treatment Plant which uses the Cape Fear River as its source water.”

“We’re expanding our conventional treatment from 24 million gallons per day to 48 million gallons per day. And we’re adding advanced treatment, which is the RO portion of the project,” Nichols said.

Commissioner Pat Sykes asked how much of the project was complete, to which Nichols responded “70%.”

Brunswick’s website officially states the project is 74%; it claims all eight reverse osmosis feed pumps — which serve the purpose of supplying the system with unfiltered water — have been installed. Electrical equipment preparation is nearly complete and a significant portion of construction, such as rapid-mix activities and filter nozzle bottoms, has wrapped.

Remaining work includes a disinfection building, sludge pumping facilities, and reverse osmosis skids, which transfers untreated water through a filter chamber and heat exchanger.

[Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed statements by Brunswick Public Utilities Director John Nichols to Brunswick Deputy Director of Design and Construction Brent Lockamy, as well as a statement by Commissioner Frank Williams to Commissioner Marty Cooke. Port City Daily regrets these errors.]

Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at

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